August 15 2015
In this personal piece about Oscar and Grammy winner composer-musician AR Rahman, Suman Bhuchar who worked on the maestro’s first UK production (‘Bombay Dreams’) asks notable figures from the world of film, theatre, academia and music, about their own favourite AR tracks…
LEGENDARY Indian film director Mani Ratnam told an audience gathered at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London recently that AR Rahman was a special “director-friendly music composer” and if he had to nominate his favourite Rahman number, it would have to be the theme tune of his film, “Bombay” (1995).
This is also the choice of composer, Nitin Sawhney for its “stunning feeling and beautiful, emotive orchestration”.
And since, it’s August and the Mozart of Madras is about to perform his first concert in UK for five years entitled “Greatest Hits live” at the O2 Arena today (the date of Indian independence), www.asianculturevulture.com asked our special panel what is it about his music that is so special.
I first met AR Rahman (pictured in full right when I was asked to be involved with the show, “Bombay Dreams”, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s seminal musical which took the West End by storm in the summer of 2002, which was a bit of a zeitgeist for all things Bollywood then. (And yes, I do like the word).
At the time Webber said he had heard about Rahman from director Shekhar Kapur – whom he had asked to direct the stage musical, “Phantom of the Opera” as a film – and was persuaded by the latter to divert his energies into a Bollywood stage musical instead.
For, Lord Lloyd Webber who went to see the film, “Taal” (1999) at Cineworld listening to Rahman’s music was a clincher.
My personal choice from the show is the one about the Miss World Contest, “Ooh La La” (which is a reworked version of a song from the Rajiv Menon film, “Minsara Kanavu” (1997, ‘Electrifying Dreams’) although “Shakalaka Baby” remains a perennial favourite.
Actress Preeya Kalidas (pictured below), who is currently doing a wonderful job as ‘Pinki’ in the musical “Bend it Like Beckham”, told www.asianculturevulture.com – that for her, it was, “an honour and one of the highlights of my career was to have had the opportunity to star in ‘Bombay Dreams’ and work with one of my favourite composers AR Rahman.”
She said that “Taal” is one of the best soundtracks composed by Rahman.
“I absolutely love it, and to have some of those songs adapted for the stage show was extremely exciting,” she said. “In particular ‘Nahi Samne Ye Alag Baat Hai‘ sung by Hariharan & Sukhwinder Singh which was re-worked for the show, ‘Bombay Dreams’ .
“It became one of my favourite songs, and was renamed ‘Closer Than Ever’ and sung as a duet with my co-star Raza Jaffrey .
“Rahman’s melodic ideas are catchy and evoke emotions to the point where I could listen to his music and be transported to a wonderful place.”
This is also the view echoed by actress, Rachel Shelley (who played Elizabeth Russell in the Oscar nominated film, “Lagaan” (2001).
Writing to us from Toronto she said: “I think my fave Rahman track is from ‘Taal‘ – I think it’s ‘Nahin Samne‘ or maybe ‘Taal Se Taal‘ – but I adore the entire soundtrack.
“I’ve never seen the film, I have no idea what they are singing about (and don’t want to know!) but find it so epic in its emotional range, its peaks of happiness and pits of romantic agony.
“I was introduced to it whilst travelling the long dusty road to and from our location near Bhuj (in Gujarat) whilst filming ‘Lagaan’, often as the sun was coming up or setting in all its splendor, I would be tired, often very alone, watching the shimmering, scorched horizon, the enormous uninterrupted vistas speeding past my window, the searing colours, Indian women in resplendent saris, fading to twilight or emerging from darkness.
“It was all very passionate, stirring stuff. It is the soundtrack to my whole ‘Lagaan‘ experience and therefore very significant to me.”
In London clubs, his music was first introduced after the film, “Bombay” and DJ Ritu (the Annie Nightingale of the Asian club scene) who runs the ‘Kuch Kuch’ and ‘Kali’ club nights told www.asianculturevulture.com that before his Oscar truimph with “Jai Ho”, it was the song, “Chaiya Chaiya”, from “Dil Se”(1998), which was massive and is still a reliable classic played today.
“I’d say that his soundtrack to ‘Bombay’ established him in a club setting followed up by the title track from ‘Rangeela’.”
“However, the Rahman favourite at our clubs is still ‘Jai Ho!’. Its Compelling groove and sing-a-long lyrics win on the dance floor every time!”
Clearly, the magic of Rahman’s composition is not lost on BBC Asian Network presenter and broadcaster Nihal whose recent Asian Music Compilation album “The Asian Collection” features three tracks by the composer, which are “Rang de Basanti” (Daler Mehndi /KS Chitra) “Tere Bina” & “Jai Ho” with The Pussy Cat Dolls.
Rachel Dwyer (pictured below), who is professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, and author of several books on Indian cinema including “Bollywood’s India: Hindi cinema as a guide to contemporary India”, told www.asianculturevulture.com that she likes to play the song “Tere bina” (from “Guru”, a 2007 film directed by Ratnam) to students studying Hindi cinema, as it is a way of exploring several themes.
Dwyer said: “The music is wonderful, with Rahman’s singing augmented by the Niyazi Nizami Brothers in a gentle Qawwali style, the lyrics by Gulzar are few but evocative, with the refrain ‘dham dara dham dara’.
“The picturisation of the song is how to do a film song. It has a key narrative role as it begins with Sujata leaving her husband ‘Guru’ to return to her maternal home, and ending with his coming to bring her home. In between, the couple’s romance is shown – remembered by them both – as they dance against the backdrop of the Islamicate Thirumala Nayak Palace in Madurai.
“This is said to be when the actors Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai fell in love so that adds even more romance to the song.”
Dwyer explained that she is “interested in the new biopic in Hindi cinema and Guru is modelled on Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder of Reliance Industries. Guru proudly declares himself to be a bania (business community), so perhaps the choice of a Sufi song for romance is another matter.”
My own interaction with Rahman also continued when he choose to work with director Matthew Warchus – who has now taken over the helm at the Old Vic (following Kevin Spacey’s departure) and made the film, “Pride” (2014) and the successful stage play, “Matilda” – when he directed the amazingly ambitious stage version of “Lord of the Rings” (2007) which had a lot of scary orcs running around the theatre and beautiful sound effects and singing, (working with the Finnish group, Värttinä ).
I recall him saying most of the work was done through technology rather than face to face meetings.
In 2009, Rahman picked up two Oscars for the music from the film, “Slumdog Millionaire” for ‘Best Original Score,’ and ‘Best Song – “Jai Ho”.
Later, Nasreen Munni Kabir, the broadcaster and author, wrote a book “The Spirit of Music” (2011) a conversation between her and the composer (which actually had its beginnings when they met in London while he was doing “Bombay Dreams”).
Kabir, likes the song, “Kehena Hi Kya” from the film, “Bombay”.
“When I first heard it, I loved the singing in between the main verses. Later I discovered it was AR’s voice. Maybe it was one of the first songs that he contributed to vocally, his music is special because he adds mood to the soundtrack not just music and songs.”
Producer, Naughty Boy (pictured right), who hopes to work with the maestro in future also likes the same track.
He explained that although he always listened to Bollywood music when he was in school, this particular track blew him away.
He told www.asianculturevulture.com: “I had never heard Bollywood music like this which had a mix of flamenco, Qawwali, ghazal, it was fresh!”
Hopefully fans will be able to hear some or all of these tracks at the live concert later today at O2 in Greenwich, London.
Suman Bhuchar is a consulting editor www.asianculturevulture.com, and theatre producer.
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